How I Write - Conversation Transcript
Penelope Eckert is a social scientist, a linguist and an ethnographer who has done ground-breaking work on adolescent behavior and linguistic gender differences and similarities. In writing one of her books – Jocks and Burnouts – she discovered a particular way to compose. “I’m not an outline person,” Professor Eckert admits. But in order to write this book she insisted that she work according to a regular plan. “I have to write five pages every morning, and it doesn’t matter what’s in them as long as it’s real.” These could be five disconnected pages or a stream of consciousness or separate essays. At the end, “I had a stack of pages, and I sat in my living-room floor, and I put these pages into piles according to topic.” She rearranged the sheets into topics, “and then the fun started,” the “actual crafting” of the book. For many people, especially those adverse to the linearity of outlines, this would be an excellent technique for producing drafts and working through arguments.
Prof. Eckert is enthusiastic about writing, and she does not worry the process too much: “I love writing. And even when I am having a hard time and I’m stuck, I love doing it, I don’t have any trouble sitting down and getting to it. And I’m not sure why.” While many people dread the revision process, she relishes it: “But I am happiest of the happiest when I’m crafting the words, when I’ve gotten the thing down and am trying to make it beautiful. That’s my favorite part.” She’s motivated because she feels that “I have something that’s worth writing, I have something to say.” This is a factor that cannot be underscored enough: for many people, the need to project their sense of reality or truth creates the impetus to overcome all sorts of hurdles.
Our conversation covers wide ground: revision, work style, academic publishing, the differences between fiction and academic writing, gender differences (and similarities) in writing, how unintended consequences (and research projects) emerge out of research plans, and more. She even hankers to write fiction, although she’s hesitant. However, with her energy and passion, it’s evident that Penelope Eckert can write anything she puts her mind to – especially if she demands five pages each day.
Transcript of How I Write Conversation with Penelope Eckert
HO: We’ve been talking with people in all kinds of fields and all kinds of disciplines about how they write. Content, of course, is always important, what you’re writing about, and you can’t extract that, separate that from the issues of how you write, but what we’re trying to do is really to find out the different ways people approach work, approach coming up with ideas, deal with issues like what happens when you get stuck? How do you organize? Are you an outliner? What’s the atmosphere when you write? Do you have certain writing rituals? Do take pleasure in writing. Paul Robinson of the History department, who is an elegant stylist, writing about Freud and intellectual history, claims that he hates to write. I don’t know whether I can believe him on that, but he says that he hates to write, for example. Whereas, other people...
A: It’s your job to believe him.
HO: Well, I have to accept it – whereas Robert Sapolsky writes riding the Caltrain to work. And he likes to limit it to that because he finds it so much fun that it’s addictive, and for him it’s like a drug. It’s a relief, rather than doing the hard science that he has to do...it’s just fun, he can release and just do all this kind of writing. It’s just two of the kind of idiosyncratic things that we learned. And it is very dramatic, and the example I always give are the first two people we spoke with: Mary Lou Roberts of the History department, she’s now in Wisconsin, I believe, who would write 80 pages before she figured out what it is she was writing about. Not exactly, you know, she’s a historian, she knew what she was writing about, but exactly what her argument was. She just accepted the fact that she might toss out 80 pages. Something that would make a lot of people gag at the thought, right? But, you know, that’s okay, 80 pages, I’ll just file it away. She also enjoyed listening to—well, she listened to light rock while writing because she hated light rock, and if she liked the music she might actually listen to it. So it helped her concentrate. Every half hour she stopped and played a computer game. So this is one style of work. David Abernathy—in Political Science, just retired, but still very active on campus—would not write anything until he’d figured out his argument. And he wrote this grand Political Science analysis history of European colonialism from its beginnings all around the world. And he would take logs—he showed us his logs—writing down notes and then commentaries on it, but would never write an article or write anything until he’s figured everything out. Consequently, it took him 15 years to write this book. He just started to develop the reputation of being a lazy academic. Someone who got tenure and stopped writing, stopped doing research, it didn’t matter anymore, and he persisted and every summer he would do the research, relying on his tenure and summers off, eventually until this book would appear. Usually an academic book has two or three readers in the field to review it, but because he had been so out of it for so long, the publisher had seven readers read the book, and they all said it was great, publish it. So that paid off for him. And he’s quite adamant. And, you know, I said I can suggest other techniques for how to...“No, no! That’s how I work!” So people get very set and determined, but you can learn and change and pick up tips. That’s the opposite of that...you can be very flexible and learn different things. So, this evening we're speaking with Professor Penelope Eckert, who is professor of half a dozen things--linguistics primarily.
PE: That’s my real—that’s who pays me.
HO: Okay, we’ll just stop there. But also the head of the feminist studies program—Director of Feminist Studies. She has done a lot of research on language and adolescents, language and gender. Particularly, her latest book, which is a collaboration with Sally McConnell Genet: Language and Gender, which I read and it’s lucid, clear, terrific, exciting...
PE: Can you tell which chapters I wrote?
HO: No, you’re gonna have to tell me that. Alright, we’ve got something set up there. Other books include Linguistic Variation and Social Practice; Jocks and Burnouts: Social Identity in the High School. I love some of these titles--Vowels and Nail Polish: The Emergence of Linguistic Style in the Preadolescent Hetereosexual Marketplace—these are some of the articles, so many articles in Linguistics—“Why Ethnography?” and on and on....let’s see if there are any others that are important, that would be good to mention. Let’s see... “Demystifying Sexuality and Desire, Communities of Practice”—in any case, many articles in the fields of language, youth, and gender. So, welcome.
PE: Thank you.
HO: And so, the way we generally run this is that I have a conversation and I ask some questions, and you usually open up with anything you’d like to say. And then at a certain point, we ask you to raise questions, concerns about writing, issues, whatever you want to engage in this broad a conversation. Now, we’re videotaping this, and ultimately, if all goes well, all these conversations will be on streaming video, with transcriptions, a website you can access, and also you can write commentaries about what you’ve seen in terms of how people write. We already have the beginnings of a website and you can go to the Undergraduate Research Programs one and you can see Eric Roberts, professor of Computer Science—his website. By the way, he revealed the fact that as a computer scientist he refuses to have a computer at home, and has a religious vow never to watch TV, and has Luddite tendencies.
PE: Well, as a linguist I refuse to have language in my home.
HO: Right. You have only gestures. Let’s open up. First of all, is there anything you want to speak about in terms of your writing? Any way you want to go.
PE: Well, I am probably happiest when writing. I love writing. And even when I am having a hard time and I’m stuck, I love doing it, I don’t have any trouble sitting down and getting to it. And I’m not sure why. But I am happiest of the happiest when I’m crafting the words, when I've gotten the thing down and am trying to make it beautiful. That’s my favorite part.
HO: Kind of a revision.
PE: Yeah. Yeah, I love revising.
HO: Speak to the undergraduates. Preach! Preach! When did you get this pleasure in writing?
PE: Well, I’ve always liked to write
PE: When I was a kid, I—
HO: Third grade?
PE: Yeah. I don’t remember though...did I write in third grade? When did I learn to write? Certainly when I was in 6 th grade I was writing little books and putting covers on them and drawing pictures on the covers and stuff. And then I went through a period when I really didn’t care about writing. When I was in college, I didn’t like to write—partly because I always had to do it in French, because I majored in French. But I went through a period where writing didn’t matter. And then when I became an academic I just really got into writing. And I guess it’s because—I think I like it more and more because I feel more and more that I have something that’s worth writing, I have something to say--not that anybody wants to hear it, but I want to say it. You know, it’s important to have something to write about, and I think probably as a student I felt that writing was something I was doing for somebody else. I was told basically what kinds of stuff to write about and so that’s a lot less fun. One thing is that I always thought I would write fiction, but I can’t
HO: Have you tried?
PE: No, I can’t even try.
HO: We'll work on that.
PE: Yes. Yeah, I wouldn't mind.
HO: Well, actually maybe some of that creative imagining has gone into your expository writing, not that you’re writing fiction...
PE: Maybe--I don't make up what I write.
HO: Right...not in that sense. Of course--but there is a narrative in what you write.
PE: Yes. Part of my dissertation was completely technical: the phonological history of a dialect that I worked on in the Pyrenees . And so, the prose ran—proto A goes to O, before nasals and stuff. It was hard to develop a style doing that and it was really frustrating. And after I finished that work, I started doing more ethnographic studies. I am interested in the relationship between language and identity, so I go into ethnography and I analyze people's use of vowels, because I always do vowels, in relation to their participation in the social order. So I get to write a lot of stuff that’s much more narrative, and that’s probably why I love my professional writing as much as I do. I think if I had to just write about sound change, I wouldn’t be liking it.
HO: So, it’s ethnographic. It’s the fact that you are actually speaking about what people do, that excites you?
PE: No, actually when I write something theoretical, there’s a narrative there, too, and I enjoy that as well.
HO: Well, now, maybe we should get past this right away. Linguistics is mainly focusing on spoken. Now, do you feel the relationship between your concentration on spoken language and written language?
HO: No. It’s like a different universe?
PE: I don’t know if it is a different universe but … okay, I don't like poetry; when I read I don't savor the prose. I am not into written language in the same way that I am into spoken language.
HO: So you like spoken art?
PE: I don’t know....let’s not talk about that.
HO: Yeah, that’s another topic. Go where you were going.
PE: This has to do with...class and things like that. I savor how people talk, but mostly because of the sounds; and when I am reading I don't take the trouble to imagine what it sounds like.
HO: As part of your writing process do you ever read your drafts out loud?
PE: No, only talks. When I’m writing a talk. Sometimes I actually write a talk out, when it something that has to happen in twenty minutes, and then I read it aloud. But no.
HO: So when you go through the revision process that you enjoy—you don’t hear it.
PE: Yeah, I hear it. I don't read it out loud, but I do hear it.
HO: So nuance and style...all those come into play. First of all, how do you generate ideas for what you want to work on? Have you pursued one—I mean, obviously there are a lot of things that are a certain field of work. Does one thing lead yet to another that leads to another? Or have you had flashes of “Oh , I want to research this?”
PE: I don’t know if this is just a clever way I have of making sense of what I’ve done in the past, but I see my research as a completely logical trajectory so that each thing I do leads to the next thing. That is, everything I do raises a new question and then I explore that question next. This may be just a really wonderful fiction that I’ve created, but I don’t think so. So you’re asking what do I do research about rather than how do I decide what to write.
HO: Well, yeah, I figure how do you decide what to research will connect to how do you decide to write.
PE: Actually, because I ground my research in ethnography, I tend to have projects that take a while. And then all kinds of stuff may come out of that project. So, for instance, Jocks and Burnouts: there is no linguistics in that book; it’s an ethnography. And what happened there was that I wanted to know the relation between the use of certain vowels that are in the process of changing in the Detroit area and adolescent social practice because—well, I won’t go into why. And the way to do that was to do ethnography to understand the social structure of the adolescent population, this adolescent community, and then correlate their use of vowels with where they were in that social structure. And so I went and hung out in a high school for two years, and did ethnography, got to know a lot of people, tape recorded stuff; and in the course of it, as I started doing the research, I wanted to read everything that had been written about adolescent social categories. And I was shocked to discover that very little had been written about adolescent social categories, and I was shocked to discover that there was very little written, and a lot of what was written was not very good. And I am sort of passionate about research on adolescents, because I think that the world has made a fortune out of adolescence; there is a whole adolescent industry. And I think that people pathologize adolescents, they clinicalize adolescents, and so I feel pretty passionate, so I end up writing a lot of stuff about that, and it’s not linguistics. Jocks and Burnouts really happened because here I am getting to know these kids—and particularly the burnouts who feel that they have no voice, these are the kids who are disaffected from school, they don’t like school, and they feel have no voice—and I felt that I had to write a book. So, in the middle of doing my linguistic analysis, I sat down and wrote this book about jocks and burnouts. So, it wasn’t what the research was supposed to be, but in the end I ended up basing my linguistic analysis on that ethnography. And in linguistics I say “Wait a minute”... there will be completely linguistic questions that have nothing to do with adolescence necessarily...the way the vowels are falling out and stuff like that. So there are a number of directions.
HO: Right, options. Now, when you finally decide to write it, do you sit down and make an outline or anything? What's your process?
PE: Well, the process for Jocks and Burnouts was – I'm not an outline person, I could never in a million years even make myself sit still long enough to write an outline. And then I’d never be able to fill it in. I tried it once—actually, I did it once. And this shows you what competitive—I never thought I was even going to think of this or talk about it. Years and years and years ago, when I was a new assistant professor, my professor, my dissertation advisor came to visit, and we had an argument, and I won the argument, and he said, “You’d better publish that idea right now, because I am going to talk about it and people will think it’s mine.” And so that very weekend I sat down and I wrote an outline, and filled it out, and I did it. It’s the only time in my life and it just had to be fear of someone attributing that fabulous idea to someone else or something...it worked.
HO: What do you usually do?
PE: Okay, here's how I wrote Jocks and Burnouts –and this is different because I hadn’t really planned to write this book, so this is different—the summer comes along, I said “I’m gonna write this book in the summer,” and I wasn’t sure what I was going to say. I knew a lot of stuff I wanted to say, but I didn’t have a picture of a book. So I said, “OK, every morning I'm going to go to my office—because I was at Michigan, it was really hot in the morning—so I’m going to go early in the morning, and I’m going to sit at my typewriter (this was a while ago), and I am going to write five pages.” I have to write five pages every morning, and it doesn’t matter what’s in them as long as it’s real. And it can be five pages about one thing, or it can be two pages about one thing, three, whatever, stream of consciousness. So I went to my office every morning and I wrote five pages, and at the end of the summer I had a stack of pages, and I sat in my living-room floor and I put these pages into piles according to topic. And then I rearranged them and I had chapters. And then within each chapter I sort of reorganized the sheets. And then the fun started – well, that was fun, it was all fun – then the actual crafting of the book started.
HO: So it was very rough.
PE: Very rough...
HO: In other words you had things that weren’t connected to other things. You had to make the connections.
PE: Yeah. So basically I had to tie all of that stuff together.
HO: Well, that’s an interesting method of composition.
PE: Yeah, it’s the only time I’ve done it that way, but I never ever start at the beginning and go to the end, no matter what I’m writing. And right now I’m in the middle of three articles, and I’m in the same horrible stage of all of them. I have an idea of what I am going to write, what it’s about, I know what it’s about, I know basically what I want to say, but I haven't worked out the argument completely. And I do something very similar. Usually, I’ll write the sort of, go for the jugular. If the argument is arguing with precedent or whatever, I’ll make some kind of a statement and usually it’s very grandiose and embarrassing and later I have to get rid of it. But the idea is there. I just have to make it a little less self-serving and pompous. And then I start—I think I write from the inside out. So I start writing stuff, and after a while I get stuck here and I’ll write stuff over here, I’ll write another piece of the argument. And then eventually I’ll have a bunch of pieces. A little bit like those piles that I had when I was doing jocks and burnouts. And then I'll get stuck. And I’m usually because I –there are two problems: one is I can’t decide how to order the argument. And one thing I've learned is there are any number of ways you can order a piece of writing, and you’re better off if you just pick one and forget it—go with it. I know that. I can’t say I always follow it. But then, I may come to a point where I have to draw. So I take out a piece of paper, if possible a piece of newsprint, and if possible with colors, just because it keeps me interested; and I’ll write one argument or one piece and draw a big circle around it--just stuff to make it out there and kind of visual--and then that helps me order my argument. And then I’ll go back to writing, usually copy big chunks from here and move them there and back and forth, and then I have the problem of making it cohere. And then sometimes I have to do it again. But then there comes the point where I'm cleaning it up, where I’m making it smooth, where I’m making it nice, and of course that's the fun part.
HO: Wow. You know, incidentally, I do that also. I draw pictures, connect things – I have a very hard time with outlines, but drawing it I can do. Now, there’s a lot of questions—you kind of addressed one question, what happens when you get stuck? Now, you kind of answered that, but have you gotten seriously stuck—you’ve never had writer’s block?
HO: Okay, so that’s not an issue. What are the other ways that you deal with things when you get stuck?
PE: I go outside and walk around, I go to the refrigerator, do laundry – I do most of my writing at home; I don't like to write in my office very much. I have a nice comfortable chair. I come in and I sit down and plant my feet on the floor, get my posture right, and then I feel really good.
HO: In front of a keyboard?
PE: Yeah, in front of the keyboard, and feel really good. I like to write in the morning – early in the morning.
HO: Okay, early...how early?
PE: Depends on the season, but—
HO: I think John Rickford—did John Rickford say 5 in the morning?
PE: Oh, he doesn’t sleep. He can do it anytime. Depending on the season, I might start writing 6, 6:30; but, you know, in the winter who wants to get up that early. It depends. I don’t like being up when it is dark out. But also I’ll work other times—I’ll write other times. I like writing on weekends. I just don’t like working at night. So if I get stuck I’ll go out sometimes and dig in the ground, I like to garden, or do laundry, or, you know, all those things.
HO: Do you go for long walks to get ideas? Or...
PE: No; well, actually, I spent four weeks at the study center in Bellagio—and this is this incredible—
HO: Bellagio in Italy?
HO: Not in Las Vegas.
PE: This is the academics reward – the Rockefeller foundation has a fabulous center and they treat you like a princess. And there are gorgeous places to walk, and there I learned to walk when I got stuck. And I was getting stuck—that was when Sally and I were starting that book and we were both there and we’d really get stuck. We didn’t know what we were doing. And then I’d go out for walks and come back and ever since that I’m more likely to walk.
HO: So you kind of learned that.
PE: Yeah, but I try to walk to campus in the morning, and don’t use walking as a way of getting unstuck from writing anymore.
HO: It’s part of your usual process, kind of. Do you have a writing space at home?
PE: I have a study.
HO: You have a study. Okay, now, do you like everything nice and clean and organized?
PE: Oh, I love it, but...
HO: Do you have a ritual?
PE: The only ritual I have is when I finish something really big—or when I am about to start a project, then I clean my study and I clean my desk and wash it. And then I get a bunch of pencils and sharpen them as if I were going to use them. I do use my sharp pencils to write on hard copy—to mark it up. But I’m kind of a slob. So cleaning my study or office at work is a way of sort of saying that something is done and getting ready for something else, but I can go for a long time without doing that.
HO: You don’t listen to music?
PE: No. I don't like a lot of noise; I'm easily distracted.
HO: Now, when you do revision work on hard copy with pencil – you do it that way mostly?
PE: I don’t like to waste paper, I worry about the trees, so I try to work as much on the screen as possible. But at some point I have to print something up to look at it, and then I mark it up with a very sharp little pencil.
HO: And you do that also in quiet?
HO: You don’t bring it to your office at work, here?
PE: I can write in my office, it’s really quiet. I just don’t like it – I don’t mind screaming or stuff. I don’t like dogs barking because I worry about what is happening to them. You know, and I don’t like to hear the television or music or talking – anything I am likely to pay attention to.
HO: Now, I have a few more questions, but I want to open it up soon to everyone else. One is, this book that you wrote in collaboration—and you’re thinking you’ll actually do several things—you have an ongoing collaborator. Now, how do you write in collaboration. You said every other chapter, so that was one—
PE: Not every other chapter, but—
PE: Okay, I have not done a lot of collaborative writing. I did collaborate with a colleague of mine, named Etienne Wenger, some years ago, and when we collaborated we actually sat in front of the computer and crafted sentences together. That was so much fun—that was really fun. We crafted the sentences and the ideas but we had the leisure, and I’ll probably never do that again with anybody. With Sally—Sally and I have very different writing styles, so anybody who knows our styles knows which chapters she wrote, and which ones I did. I tend to write fairly short, terse sentences, and Sally writes long sentences. Sally writes like a philosopher—at least that’s what a philosopher told me—and also we wrote this book together because our expertise in linguistics is very complementary; she's a formal semanticist. So she wrote chapters on presupposition, stuff like that, and I wrote chapters on what I do. And so each of us, we just wrote our chapters and then sent them to each other. And then Sally would tie my sentences together and I would cut hers apart. And then we’d send them back. We didn’t mess too much with each other’s style actually. There I think the content was far more of a collaboration than the actual writing.
HO: So once you had worked out the content--the writing became something that flowed from that?
PE: If you can call it flowing, yeah.
HO: Well, came from that.
PE: It came from that, but then of course at some point we wrote a draft and restructured it completely. So then we’d take chunks out of this chapter and move it into another.
HO: So a similar style as your other writing?
HO: And that was fine with her?
PE: Yeah, I don’t know if that is how she usually works or not, but that’s what we did.
HO: But she went for it...Let me ask you one more question, then we’ll open it up. You do gender and language. Now, have you had perceptions about gender and writing? Your own writing? Other people’s writing?
HO: Have you talked to Andrea lately? She might – you haven’t had any observations about that?
HO: Okay, that’s pretty interesting. Well, then along those lines, what do you think about writing students at here at Stanford? You’ve had to read a lot of student writing. Do they write okay?
PE: Some of them; no, I think in general students at Stanford write quite well.
HO: Have you seen any of them change over time?
PE: I don’t think I've been here long enough to see change over time.
HO: Well, at least among the students generally?
PE: Ten years.
HO: How long have you been teaching here?
PE: At Stanford? Since 1973.
HO: So that’s a long time. Has there been any change? People are always saying that students—you know, it’s all going downhill.
PE: Oh, I wouldn’t say that.
HO: Alright, just want to check.
PE: When I moved to California I thought that all kinds of social change had taken place when actually I’d just moved to California. And I think it’s probably the same—you know, I moved universities and Stanford is different from the University of Michigan. But in general , I’ve seen some incredibly impressive writing here at Stanford, and I’ve seen a lot of good writing. I haven’t seen any bad writing.
HO: Okay. Who do you like to read in a way that maybe affects your style—the way that you write? Or do you have—you read someone and say, “Oh, I’d like to write like this.”
PE: I read a lot of murder mysteries. And some people have told me that I write as though it were a murder mystery; I don’t tell people what I’m saying until the end. There are a lot of writers that I like, but I never think of myself as trying to emulate them. I guess because when I read fiction I see it as something different from what I do. And when I read—I don’t know, maybe I don't pay enough attention.
HO: Well, you know, writings by linguists?
PE: Well, I read a lot of anthropology. And there are a lot of really good writers among anthropologists. But it is not as if I say this person is my favorite writer.
HO: So you haven’t perceived somebody affecting your writing.
PE: They may have, but I just haven't perceived it. I’m just not reflective enough about it.
HO: Let’s open it up. Any kind of questions.
PE: Don’t embarrass me.
HO: We want you to use the mic so you get on the—
PE: They just want to point the camera at you.
HO: So that it’s not a voice question, it’s a recording.
A: I was just wondering—you said you go on walks when you needed to think, or you’d get up and do other things—when you’re doing that, do you try to think about what you are writing, or do you just like block it out of your mind completely?
PE: When I was in Bellagio, I would actually try to work it out while I was walking because we only had four weeks and we were really desperate. But generally, when I get up to do something else it’s to clear my head. And sometimes I’ll find—I’ll go out and dig in the garden or something, and after a while suddenly I will find myself thinking about it, and then I know it is time to go back in.
A: Do you think that if you were to write fiction your style would change as well? Because—I mean I know it’s hypothetical, but you were saying you write the short, terse sentences versus the long.
PE: Oh, I don’t think they’re really short, terse—just in comparison with Sally’s. I have a feeling that my style would stay pretty much the same. But it’s an interesting question.
HO: I’m going to try you on this. I'm going to ask you to write some fiction
HO: I’ll give you an assignment.
PE: Good luck. There are a few editors who think they’ve given me assignments.
HO: Has anyone ever asked you to write fiction?
HO: Well, maybe that’s all you need.
HO: It doesn’t have to be a huge story. Let’s start off with just like three pages. Very short. A moment.
PE: That’s a great challenge. I mean, I like that idea.
HO: Well, you know, How I Write...Make You Write.
PE: How I Don’t Write?
A: How do you think pressure affects how you write? Do you write differently depending on—
PE: Whether I’m under pressure?
A: Whether the work will be really scrutinized, or just looked over generally—not that it’s published or not published—but if it’s like a draft or it’s a final...?
PE: Well, I assume that all of my final drafts will be scrutinized one way or another. I don’t really like doing anything under pressure, but I do most of what I do under pressure. I am a procrastinator, like a lot of other people. When I’m writing something I don’t procrastinate about sitting down to work, but I procrastinate before I start something. I tend to not start something until it’s due. And then, so I am working under pressure, but that doesn’t bother me, I pretend it is not there. It’s a good way to make enemies, but... I should also say, though, when you said ‘writing under pressure’ the first thing I thought of was in-class exams. And I was really bad at that; I won’t give in-class exams because I was so bad at it.
HO: You got it?
A: In what ways and how do you find your own voice coming through in your writing?
PE: I guess in a variety of ways, and I have never really thought about my own voice. I feel as if my style is very much my own. If somebody asked me to describe my style I would have not a clue what to say; but when I write a sentence I see that as my sentence. There is a piece of my voice that I think—and it’s something that has emerged really over fairly recent years—when I’m more willing to expose myself, and so I try to include in a lot of what I write things that I think have done wrong. Rather than—I went through a phase where I was always preaching at people; and more and more I thought that it is really a person’s—a researcher's responsibility to expose their mistakes and their misconceptions and so on. And I guess I feel as if that’s becoming a little part of my voice. And the reason that I think it’s part of my voice is that it has to do with the way I feel about my work and my development and the course of my life and at some point you have to stop pretending and let other people see that life is a bit of a trial and error, and that research involves trial and error, and that the purpose of writing is not simply to tie a neat package around what was really frequently a very flawed process, but to actually discuss the flawed part of the process, because people can learn from that and I can learn from that, too. So more and more I talk about the shortcomings of the research I’ve done as well as trying to make it look really superb.
HO: And that you sense to be your voice?
PE: Yes, a piece of it anyway. Yeah, because I think—I mean, one of the things that I am most concerned with in academics, because that’s where I live, is lack of confidence, insecurity. I was plagued by lack of confidence as a student and for years, and I know when my own students are plagued by lack of confidence; and the thing we learn to do in academics is to cover it up and act really cool. And when we do research we get—and when you teach—I remember as an assistant professor learning to act how I knew more than I did. And in research, learning how to make the final product look as if there had been no glitches beforehand, or as if everything had been done perfectly. And all that is doing is contributing to other people’s insecurity, and it doesn’t help mine because I know that I have been covering up. In fact, life is not just a sequence of perfect moves. So, it really has to do with something that’s very important to me about the way we live and do our work as academics.
HO: Which makes me think that as a writer you are not plagued by perfectionism. In other words, it must be perfect. Your whole process is not...perfect appearing on the screen.
PE: No, I’m not a perfectionist. There is some point at which I have to say, “This is going to be done in five minutes.” I did that this morning.
HO: Good or bad it’s done. We’ve got a question on this side. Pass the mic. You had a question, too?
PE: Mics travel slowly.
HO: Turn it up, it’s still not going on. Power.
A: I have to decide now which question because you’ve stirred a lot within me. Maybe I’ll go back to the question that was asked of you about the difference between women and men writers—you answered it quickly, which gave me a sense that you’ve thought about it, or kind of examined the question. It’s not the first time that you’ve been asked the question.
PE: It is the first time I’ve been asked the question. I’ve seen others answer it—think about it. I think part of the reason I answered so fast was partly out of a sense of embarrassment that I haven’t really thought about it very much. And part of it has to do with my work in language and gender: one of the things that I have to fight is a constant search for male-female difference.
HO: You have to be obsessed by that.
PE: Yeah, and people build huge edifices around supposed gender differences. So I spend a lot more of my efforts trying to come to terms with that, as part of what gender is, that is looking for difference. And, in fact, there are far more similarities than differences in speech, and speech is what I focus on, and it’s what sort of gets me thinking. And I haven’t even sat down, and I guess I don’t take—although I love to write, I can’t say that I take the written word seriously in the way a lot of people do. I just am not into verbal art in the same way, so I’ve never sat and thought about whether there are gender differences in writing.
HO: Well, the other thing though for linguists to examine is the connection between speaking and writing. George Fredrickson, for example, said that the had learned how to write because he was on the high school debating team, and they had to do things like pick a topic and immediately come up with an argument. And he became very skilled at spieling it out. So that there are connections there, too, and you point out all these connections about the way women speak differently than men, you know, for example so it might affect—but this is a topic that we should talk about more in depth some other time...
PE: But remember that I do write about gender differences in language, but mostly when we say that women do something differently than men or vice versa, I’m usually saying this is not true. Or that the gender differences lie somewhere else.
HO: The source of them.
PE: Well, ultimately, the differences, and the kind of differences you have among men and differences among women. And looking for differences between them is burying where gender really lives.
A: You mentioned assignments from editors and you’ve written a few books, I was wondering if you could talk more about how it works when they contact you, you contact them—and that kind of process?
PE: Uh, yeah. I guess that is sort of a career trajectory thing: you start out trying to find somebody to publish your stuff and then eventually they start coming to you. I don’t know, I’m not sure—I’m thinking of Sally’s and my book. Sally and I started collaborating in about 1990, we taught a course together in a linguistic institute for a summer at Santa Cruz, and we wrote an article for the Annual Review of Anthropology together, and we did a couple of other things together, and pretty soon publishers started coming and asking us to write a textbook on language and gender. And we said absolutely not. I never wanted to write a textbook. This is something I didn’t mention. I hate writing about other people's stuff. I only like writing about my own stuff. Partly because I don't want to misrepresent other people, and partly because I think I’ve probably missed something, but mostly it’s just not new. So I’m writing about something that’s already been written about. So I thought there was no way. And so one publisher asked us and we said no. And then another publisher—and then Cambridge asked us to do it and we said no. And then one night, Judith Ailing, who was the linguistic editor for Cambridge at the time was in town and she came over to my house and brought a bottle of wine and as we were talking—we were talking about the field of language and gender, and about all the problems, you know what I saw as the problems. And finally she said, “If you and Sally don’t write the book, just think about who will.” And—
HO: That did it, huh?
PE: Yeah, so I called Sally and said, “Well, maybe we should reconsider.” And that was how it happened. You get some really clever—editors are really cool, interesting people usually, I like working with them.
HO: What about the earlier part of the process: getting your first works published?
PE: I learned something very early on. In academics, it’s—there’s an expression: “through the transom” or “over the transom,” that is submitting a manuscript to a press without any prior contact. And I was told never to do that. And in academics there is always somebody who can introduce you and recommend your book to an editor. And that’s a really important thing. Eventually, editors—presses have editors who are specialized by field, and frequently they have degrees in that field, and these people make it their business to get to know people. And, so, networks are always everything, but by finding somebody to help you get to know a particular editor and bring your manuscript to their attention, you have a better chance.
HO: This is a key thing. Students ask me often how to get something published. In trade press also; trade press meaning fiction, you know, the non-scholarly press...it could be nonfiction also. This whole thing of getting to know people in a field and getting to know other writers who know other writers who know an agent, who then--I read it and give it to a friend who then gives it to a friend and says to an agent and says, “You should take a look at this.” Because of that, so many things happen. Very rarely you mail something in—not that it doesn’t happen, it can happen—but very rarely you mail something in and it sits on this pile and somebody gets it two years later because it’s such a huge pile. All those sorts of things. Even just to get someone to read something—and then after that, how they accept it or not is all kinds of other issues. But that’s really important. Over here?
A: I was wondering if you—this is a technical question—know of any guides on transcription or turning someone else’s speech into writing? I’m working on something right now and I find it really hard to turn what I heard into something on paper – because people don’t actually speak in sentences and paragraphs and things like that.
PE: You mean taking it verbatim and then turning it into real prose?
A: Like transcription.
PE: Well, for me transcription means putting down precisely what they say, and that’s not what you mean.
A: Like putting it into a form that is readable for someone who doesn’t know linguistics—like an average reader.
PE: You mean, taking really technical stuff and making it comprehensible?
A: My question is, if you do an interview, and you have it on tape, and then you go into the process of transcribing it and trying to take a section of it and put it into your writing—are there any guides on how to do that in a way that is readable because what I keep finding is that the way people speak isn't really the way that we’re used to reading.
PE: I wish I could answer that question, but I can’t—can you?
HO: Well, there are people who have addressed that question, particularly people doing oral history, people doing history—things involve interviews. There are guidelines. If you go into the library around Handbook for Oral History, you might get some guidelines for what you are doing. You are allowed to edit, you are transforming speech into written language, and it’s different; but you have certain guidelines for how to do that without violating what it is that people are saying. So, you know, putting in commas, taking out the “uhh’s”—“well, uh,” “well, uh,”—things like that. Maybe even adjusting sentences. Usually in a work there’s a footnote or some introduction about the process of editing interviews. There also might be the case where you’re showing the interview to the person you interviewed for them to approve that, indeed, despite your editing, that it is what they said. So those are just some little brief tricks of that trade. Be careful. You know, all those stories of journalists who have made up things by editing—it’s so tempting to just—“They almost said it, so let’s edit it so they do say it.” Any other questions? One more question. Let’s get one more. No one else over there has one, but I know that you do.
A: I do. It seems as though you were drawn to writing very early. And I’m just wondering, who have been the mentors or where did the inspiration come, or—or, or?
PE: My parents, I guess. I read a lot when I was a kid. And I liked writing stories, and my parents encouraged me. And my grandmother encouraged me. I used to write letters to my grandmother. And then when I was—my best friend moved away when I was in elementary school, and we wrote to each other constantly. We wrote to each other every day, for quite a while. Now I can't write letters to save myself. I cannot write. When I owe letters, it’s a nightmare. But I have email.
HO: Do you do email?
PE: Yes, but not everybody has email. So I guess that—but to a great extent it was—I don’t remember because it was so long ago. But to extent it was, and mostly just I did it, and my parents admired it, but nobody pushed it.
HO: Did you have teachers who also encouraged you?
PE: I don’t remember. Yeah, I think so...yeah. I can’t think back to one teacher who was particularly—but I had generally....
HO: You didn’t have that one teacher.
PE: No, no, no.
HO: Some people do.
PE: Yeah, I know. Some people do. I had a lot of good teachers. And the teachers all thought I was a cute, smart little thing, and so they did all the right things—but, you know, I don’t remember too well what they were.
HO: [laughing] A cute, smart little thing...that’s great.
PE: Like I said, it was a long time ago.
HO: You know, I'll come up with an assignment for you, just to give you some inspiration. We talked with Renato Rosaldo, you know, cultural and social anthropology, who several years ago got a stroke, and ten days after he recovered from the stroke, he started, for no apparent reason, to write poetry. And he’s been writing poetry ever since. He finds it, first of all, a relief; he goes into a poetry scene and rather than a professional association of anthropologists where he’s lionized, he’s nobody—he kind of enjoys that—
PE: That’s a rare thing about Renato—
HO: Right, that he would enjoy that. And that he—one side of his body was weakened by the stroke, and the doctors said “well, you should write or maybe do something”—so he started writing with both hands. And he started writing in English and then in Spanish, and then at a certain point he wrote simultaneously in English and Spanish, the same poem.
PE: That’s not the assignment you’re going to give me—
HO: No, and God forbid you should have a stroke to get to that point, but there was apparently some—and he’s been now really excited about it and doing it a lot. And now that he is moving to NYU, gonna be in New York , heavy duty poetry scene. So we’ll see what happens but he’ll probably have, he should have a book published soon. But transformations like that do happen.
PE: I don’t have to wait until I retire?
HO: No. Tune in next year, those of you who will be here. Some of the people that have agreed already to join us: Paula Moya, the head of CSRE and a professor of English, Estelle Freedman, former director of Feminist Studies, but from the History department, Deborah Satz, director of the program in Ethics and Society. And numerous other people...they’re lining up.